“Mindfulness of Consciousness” Meditation Retreat

N.B. I’ve organized all my blog posts on meditation retreats and Buddhist into this one long page. If you’re new, you can read that page for more context on my journey to date, my summary of the Buddhist argument, and my experiences at other long retreats. This post is a dispatch from my latest retreat.

The Rollercoaster of Retreat / Life

A few days into my fifth silent Buddhist meditation retreat in April 2022, I walked out of my dorm building and ambled down toward the meditation hall to make the 4pm guided sit. I noticed a half dozen people standing at the bottom of the path, staring intently out at the hills behind me. In the next moment, I smelled smoke, and turned around to face the scene that had captivated the other meditators: smoke billowing over the hills and down into the Spirit Rock campus.

Was it a wildfire? Were we on the midst of being evacuated? My first thought: “Yes! The retreat may be cancelled and I can go home early.” Despite all my time meditating on silent retreats, they’re still hard for me. Hard first and foremost physically: sitting on the ground for so many hours does a number on your knees, back, and shoulders. And of course it’s hard mentally: the endless stretch of time with no company but your own out-of-control mind.

Nobody made any evacuation announcements, so I walked into the meditation hall for the regularly scheduled sit, half-wondering if fire trucks were going to interrupt the whole retreat at any moment. Amazingly, despite the distractions, I actually had a really good sit. My mind was still. Clear. Luminous. Present. My body felt settled. I was aware. I stayed in the hall after the bell had rung and others had left to bask in the unexpected stillness. The quiet in my mind.

When I got up to leave, I thought to myself: “Oh man, this is amazing. I need more days here. I hope there’s no evacuation.”

And there would not be an evacuation. It turned out a building structure nearby had caught fire and was quickly extinguished.

The emotional gyrations of that one afternoon embody what happens in your mind over all 10 days within the uniquely barren and silent retreat container: “This is amazing!” Followed by: “No this is terrible, get me out of here.” On retreat, the task is to achieve some level of equanimity during these ups and downs, which of course is also a task in life: learning to ride the rollercoaster of highs and lows with a smile, learning to dance with the craziness of life, learning to find some modicum of inner peace in a world which is so impermanent.

The Instructions: Be Aware of Consciousness

In previous posts I outlined the basic instruction of Vipassana practice.

The fundamental instruction of this particular retreat, which was geared towards experienced practitioners, was to maintain “Mindfulness of Consciousness.” The retreat drew upon Theravada Buddhist frameworks in general and Vipassana meditation instruction specifically for the first few days. Be aware of an object of concentration (e.g. the breath) in order to collect and unify the mind. On Day 3, the teachers instructed us to expand our practice into the broader field of awareness. Then become aware of the fact that you’re aware, and then further become aware of the fact that you’re aware of awareness.

It was very meta. And very inward looking. The idea is that by turning your mind inwards, you can become mindful of consciousness itself: its steady, mirror-like qualities. Consciousness is like clear, clean water — there is no flavor. In a big sky meditation, teacher Sally Armstrong instructed: “The mind is clear and empty, like a limitless sky. To see if this is so, look within your own mind.”

“Look within your own mind” is the quintessential Buddhist meditation instruction: you are told time and time again to observe and experience stuff first hand in order to come to conclusions. Do not accept claims on blind faith. This retreat sought to cultivate in us a subtle awareness of the steady capacity of knowing — to look within your own mind not just to notice the coming and going of thoughts and sensations, but to to observe the steadiness of consciousness itself.

One way to get at the nebulous feeling of consciousness was to feel “spaciousness.” We were frequently told to imagine endless space around us. To cultivate in your mind a sense of an endless horizon. Sally Armstrong quoted this line once: “She opened the clenched fist of her mind and fell into the midst of everything.” To fall into the midst of…everything. To feel spaciousness physically can enable you, the teaching suggested, to relax the intensity of the gaze in your own mind and take in a wider frame. If you soften your focus a bit, you’re able to relax into a state of being mindful of consciousness.

In one sense, this awareness of consciousness skill is supposed to be an “advanced” skill. You work on it only after several days of more straightforward concentration practice. And it’s a skill being taught on a retreat open only to those who had been on at least a couple retreats before (and about half the group of 90 people had been on more like 10+ silent retreats). And it’s a practice that, apparently, leads one to better knowledge of emptiness, a concept that’s definitely not in the beginner Buddhism cannon.

On the other hand, the instruction for being aware of awareness is so simple that many students think they are missing something. For example, we were told to ask ourselves: “Am I aware?” You answer yes, you rest in that awareness until that awareness breaks…and that’s it. Or, you visualize your palm facing outwards, and then the palm turning inwards toward your body. And that triggers your mind to turn inward and notice awareness. Or, you visualize a vast open sky, as your consciousness, and you notice anything hitting your sense doors or any thoughts as objects arising and falling, like fireworks, in the sky you have visualized in your mind.

I’m not sure how well I “got it” but once I sort of relinquished the idea that it was an especially difficult skill and instead took comfort in the straightforwardness of any of these instructions — I think I rested in awareness somewhat successfully. Guy Armstrong’s dharma talks in particular on emptiness were quite stimulating, but I can’t say I fully and deeply saw the connection between emptiness and awareness of consciousness.

The Pleasure of Perfect Stillness

It’s hard to convey the nature of the pleasure you feel when you’re perfectly still physically and mentally.

Sometimes, when sitting, I felt like my body was a 300 year old majestic mountain, anchored into the core of the earth and standing tall, not flinching in the wind. Perfectly solid yet with no clenched muscles.

Mentally, the majority of the time on retreat, the mind is as out of control as normal. But there are moments. Sometimes a sequence of moments that when strung together add up to an evenness of mind. Moments where whatever is happening is happening, and you’re in that moment exactly. No ambient noise or thoughts. Just the breath. Or just a specific sound or ache or a feeling.

As on previous retreats, this time, during mental stillness, I sometimes generated a visualization in my mind of my mind as so sharp, so in my control, that by merely directing the mind and my attention — as sharp as a razor — toward a glass window in my mind’s eye, the glass would shatter.

During one of Phillip Moffitt’s evening dharma talks, we were all sitting quietly and listening. It wasn’t formal meditation, but we were sitting silently in a meditation hall. There was occasional shifting of positions or sighs or coughs or what have you, as folks sat back after a long day to take in the final lecture. Then Phillip said, “Let’s all experience the next moment. Everyone just be still for this moment and then another moment.” Heeding the request, everyone in the hall ever so slightly erected their posture, froze their bodies, closed their eyes, and awoke to the present moment.

There was total stillness in the hall. It was quiet before. But now the silence was absolute and stretched perfectly taut from one end of the room to the other. After a few more moments, Phillip said, “Did you just feel that? Did you feel that wave of stillness roll through the room? I find that so nourishing.”

And I did. Stillness did sweep the room all at once, like fog rolling through the early evening of a San Francisco night, wetly kissing all its residents at once. I had never thought of stillness as nourishing before.

Deep Memories About One Place

I have now spent 30 days and 30 nights on the Spirit Rock campus. 30 exceptionally personal, intimate, intense days when time passed slowly and every little thing in the physical space around me came under microscopic presence.

The first thing you notice is the stunning natural beauty: wild turkeys, soaring hawks, salamanders, and assorted critters sharing the golden rolling hills.

Despite the vastness of the overall campus, your day to day experience mostly plays out on a finite number of paths and benches and walking paths in and around the dorm rooms, meditation hall, and dining hall.

You begin to develop associations with particular paths and benches. For example, on one of the trails, there’s a bench next to a differently shaped tree. Four years ago, during a concentration retreat, I sat on the bench and contemplated death. Really contemplated the inevitability of it. It was a powerful moment for me then. This time around I came upon that tree and that bench, having forgotten about my previous experience there, and it whipped me back in time.

Circular Habits of Mind

When you spend hours observing your mind, you notice patterns. One pattern I noticed on this retreat is that if I’m in a bad mood or if my mind gets trapped on a negative pattern, the mind inclines toward other topics for which I have built-up negativity. It bounces around from grievance to grievance, pet peeve to pet peeve, injustice to injustice. One after the other.

And if the agitated, negatively-inclined mind happens to hit upon a topic or person for whom I usually have warm feelings? The warmth is nowhere to be found, and I invent something negative.

How long do these cycles last normally? Well, in normal life, not very long. In part that’s because you have distractions. Turn to your phone. Turn on a show. Go attend a meeting in which you have to focus and put on a certain face — and push the negative thought cycle out of mind, at least temporarily.

In normal life, the most problematic time for these negative patterns to take over is at night, when trying to fall asleep. Or for me, it’s usually the middle of the night. I awaken at 2am and can’t fall back to asleep.

On retreat, when an agitated mind emerges, there are no distractions. Nothing to run towards. You have to sit there and take it. It’s the hardest part about a retreat, for me. People think it’s the not-talking-to-people that’s hard. Kind of — but not because you just miss talking so much. What you miss is the ability to distract yourself with socializing. Being alone with your thoughts is the hardest.

When you have nothing to do but observe the mental pattern, you realize its power. You wonder how often those thought patterns lurk in the subconscious, conspiring almost in secret to drag us down.

The ultimate goal of Vipassana practice, as once framed by Steve Armstrong, is to uproot these negative habits of mind by noticing them each time they emerge. And in the noticing, you become not so lost in them, and eventually, they become so weakened, they disappear altogether.

Speaking of patterns, it wasn’t all negative. Indeed, throughout any given day, most of my thoughts are neutral or positive, as I’m generally a reasonably happy person. The one spiky positive pattern I observed on retreat: my dog Oreo! It was interesting how prominently my dog Oreo featured in any thoughts that involved joy and happiness. I mean, he is the best boy, so perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising?

Softening the Gaze with Relaxed Effort

To meditate you need to be relaxed. It’s not uncommon for beginner or advanced meditators to forget this basic instruction. Meditators often find themselves grasping too hard to “achieve” something — effortfully trying to concentrate their mind, track the breath, track other objects, make something happen in their mind. Meditation masters will say that the more you try to make something happen, the tighter you grasp, the less likely you are to have the outcome you desire. Instead: Just sit. Just breathe. Soften your gaze. Don’t try to make anything happen.

You hear similar advice in sports. In sports, you hear coaches tell players to ease up, to back off, to loosen their grip on the bat, to “let the game come to them,” to loosen up, to remember to have fun. There’s something about applying too much effort that backfires.

It’s not advice you hear as much in the realm of business or management advice and I wonder why. It seems relevant. Sometimes we can become too wrapped up in a goal, in a project, in an analysis. We can be trying so hard to solve something, to fix something, to dissect a relationship, that our very focus on the outcome inhibits our ability to succeed.

Easier said than done, of course. To relax our focus, to soften our gaze, to let some of our emotional energy around the issue arise and then pass away. Less grasping, more fluidity. It’s counterintuitive to think that if we think less about something, if we try less hard, somehow we could realize a better outcome. I wrote about this in a previous post about a retreat: “receptive effort.”

Simple Living

One of my fears anytime I upgrade my standard of living is: Will I ever be able to go back? If I become accustomed to three star hotels, can I stay again at a two star hotel? If I upgrade to a nice SUV car, can I ever again be comfortable driving a small compact?

You learn on retreat that you can, in fact, live simply. My little dorm room was perfectly adequate. The suitcase of clothes was plenty. I loved my little in-room sink for brushing my teeth, and the shared bathroom was no big deal. How or why do I sometimes think I need 5 different sweatshirts to choose from when just one will do?

Joseph Goldstein: “We feel pleasant unworldly feelings on retreat, in the renunciation of our familiar comforts. We begin to enjoy the beauty of simplicity… When I go on retreat, it is so clear that everything I need is right in my small room, and when I think of my regular life, it seems so cluttered by comparison.”

An Easy Yogi Job

When you first arrive for a retreat at Spirit Rock, you get assigned a chore on campus — your “work meditation” or “yogi job.” The chores range from cleaning dishes in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, scrubbing toilets, taking out trash bins, vacuuming rooms, and so on.

My first time at Spirit Rock I got assigned pot cleaning duty in the kitchen. I had never worked in a commercial kitchen before, so it was an experience. I washed hundreds of dishes and pots and pans and equipment every day after lunch. As I wrote about in my post about that retreat, a fellow pot cleaner wrote me a nice card and handed it to me on the last day: “Ben, it’s been a pleasure doing pot scrubbing meditation with you. I hope your time here has brought much benefit and renewed your love for practice. Many blessings to you.”

My second retreat there I got assigned bathroom cleaning duty in our dorm room. Every day for an hour I scrubbed toilets and cleaned the shower area.

Both were “hard” jobs, as far as yogi jobs go.

This time, after checking in, the staffer scanned his sheet for the available jobs: “Let’s see, it’s mostly bathrooms and kitchen duty at this point…well, it looks like there’s courtyard sweeping available too. Which would you like?”

I tried to keep a poker face. Courtyard sweeping — moving the leaves off the grounds right in front of the meditation hall, as photographed above — I could do at any time during the day, solo. It was an ideal gig, I thought. So much easier than the other gigs. But I didn’t want to seem too greedy, too self-interested when signing in for… a Buddhist meditation retreat. “Ok, well let’s see,” I told the volunteer, in an even, wannabe reflective tone, “Previous retreats I did toilet scrubbing and dish cleaning. Maybe I’ll try courtyard sweeping this time.” So it was assigned, and I was thrilled, and also somewhat amused with myself for how I felt the need to posture to the volunteer check-in coordinator about my previous good deeds.

Then something interesting happened. I found the courtyard sweeping job a dud — way less satisfying than my two previous jobs. While indeed easy and simple, it did not feel useful. There were precious few leafs to actually sweep off the courtyard. Scrubbing toilets involved grime, but I knew how much I appreciated a clean toilet in the dorm, and it felt satisfying to keep the bathroom clean for my housemates.

No Sleep, No Problem

I don’t do great on low sleep. That’s a truth, borne from experience, that I have never questioned. But I wonder if that’s a story that’s overly hardened in my head?

My most disastrous day of the retreat was about midway through. I didn’t sleep well the night before. I was up for hours in the middle of the night, including from 12am midnight until 4:50am, with my mind racing in every which direction (ironic, I know, being on a retreat). By that time, I knew I’d be woken again by the 5:30am wake up bell. I then did something I’ve never done before: I got out of bed and took a Tylenol PM at 4:50am. I sometimes take TyP when I travel or if I’ve had several rough nights of sleep, just to lock in a solid night’s sleep when I feel like I need it. But I always take it earlier in the evening because if it enters my body too late it can cause drowsiness the next morning. Taking it at 4:50am seemed crazy but I was desperate for sleep and concerned about losing a whole day of a retreat to sleep-deprivation. It knocked me out for about 90 mins. I awoke at 8am.

I missed the early morning sit and breakfast. I threw on my sweatpants and hustled down to the dining hall to grab a couple soft boiled eggs that were left in the fridge. I felt tired, groggy, and grumpy. I rolled into the meditation hall at 8:30am for the guided sit.

Then something funny happened. I had a series of excellent sits and walks. I felt tired, a bit, but not too bad. I felt concentrated. I felt aware. And my day kind of unfolded rather nicely.

It made me wonder: Do I stress too much about getting a bad night of sleep? Being stressed about getting enough sleep can inhibit your ability to get sleep, for sure — there’s a weird feedback loop. So it’d be nice if the reality of my experience is that I can manage on low sleep, at least if it’s not too many days in a row.

What Would a Virtue Bootcamp Look Like?

If I had access to a facility as beautiful as Spirit Rock, and had 10 days of my life blocked off, what other worthy spiritual or intellectual adventures could one construct? In other words, could you craft something around developing virtue and wisdom, via lectures and discussions and some meditation and some reading, where the experts or books come from a range of spiritual and intellectual traditions? What would a “virtue bootcamp” look like?

Intentions vs. Goals

A teacher once said on this retreat: “Trust your intention when you signed up for the retreat.” It made me think: What was my intention with the retreat?

I don’t really think about “intentions” but in re-reading some of Phillips’ writings, I found the distinctions below, as described in his book, helpful:

Living from your intentions is quite different from living from your goals. It is not oriented toward achieving a future outcome. Instead it is a path of practice that is focused on how you are being in the present moment. Your attention is on the ever-present now in the constantly changing flow of life. You set your intentions by understanding what matters most to you and making a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.

Cultivating intention does not mean you abandon goals. You continue to use them, but they exist within a larger context of meaning that offers the possibility of peace beyond the fluctuations caused by pain and pleasure, gain and loss. Goals help you find your place in the world and make you an effective person. But being grounded in intention is what provides integrity and unity in your life.

Students often ask me whether values and intentions are the same thing. In my view, values come from understanding what is important to you and are part of your personal philosophy, whereas intentions are the application of your values in daily life. You have an array of values that extends into all aspects of your life. For example, you may value loyalty in friendship, earning an honest living, individual privacy, self-understanding, living a certain lifestyle, etc. You also have a core set of intentions that are based on your values and with which you want to meet every moment of your life, such as integrity, compassion, not causing harm to others, being accountable, and so forth. So if one of your values is self-understanding, it is through your intentions of practicing integrity and accountability that you manifest the wisdom that you gain from self-understanding.

In Buddhist psychology, your path to well-being begins with understanding the values you want to live by (your intentions) and the direction you want your life to go in (your goals).

Your values and intentions form the foundation of your inner priorities. So in setting inner priorities, you are specifying how you wish to feel inside no matter what you are doing. Begin by naming your values and intentions and reflecting on what brings you peace of mind and joy. Acknowledging that you are a work in progress, set reasonable priorities that are truly possible for you to live out in daily life. As best you’re able, rank your inner priorities on a scale of 1–3, with 1 being your most important priorities and so forth.

“I Feel the Sincerity”

Throughout the course of a retreat you have an opportunity to meet with teachers 1:1 a couple times. In my first meeting, I shared a question that I won’t repeat here.

The teacher, after talking for a bit, paused and looked me dead in the eye: “I feel the sincerity of your question.”

No one has ever said that to me before. That they feel my sincerity. For some reason that line is still ringing in my memory as I look back on the retreat.

The Best Version of Yourself

A silent meditation retreat isn’t real life. Not even close. The physical setting and conditions are hard to replicate in normal life and indeed, even establishing a regular meditation practice at home after retreat is not made dramatically easier just because you’ve been on retreat.

So what’s the lasting benefit of a retreat? A significant part of it, for me, is that you see the best version of yourself on retreat. You will likely be as peaceful, as compassionate, as level headed on a silent meditation retreat as you will be anytime else in your life. You’re not like this all the time on the retreat. Just for moments.

In the same way that mindfulness practice leads to moments of genuine freedom, in the Buddhist sense of that word, going on retreat leads to moments where you catch a glimpse of what your best self looks like. What the best version of your mind looks like: clear, stable, collected, radiant.

It’s a benchmark against which to compare other moments. It’s a true north. It’s a version of yourself that you know is possible.

N.B. I’ve organized all my blog posts on meditation retreats and Buddhist into this one long page. If you’re new, you can read that page for more context on my journey to date, my summary of the Buddhist argument, and my experiences at other long retreats.

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